Expert Blog

Forget carjacking: carhacking is what should scare us now

Is 2015 going to be a good year for you? A recent edition of the Times may have given some motorists food for thought with its front page headline written black and bold: ‘Hackers could control your car remotely, drivers told.’ And the story underneath was no cheerier. Apparently, according to a range of industry experts, the increased computerisation and connectedness of our vehicles is opening them up to new threats. Hackers could – in theory and, in some cases, in practice –take over their systems from outside. Your locks, your steering, your brakes; all in the hands of someone who means no good.   

What makes this immediately scary is the fact that it’s already happening. The Times article mentions how tech-savvy thieves have managed to bypass the security systems on certain “keyless” BMWs and Range Rovers. It also cites a study, conducted last year, which demonstrated how hackers could ‘accelerate and brake, honk the horn, switch the headlights on and off, change the speedometer and fuel gauge and cause the car to swerve’. It was a physical connection between the vehicle and a laptop in that case, but the same principles presumably hold true for wireless connections.

But the really scary thing is what this means for the future. We are pretty evangelical about electric and driverless motoring on this blog, but there’s no denying that it raises several dread questions. For instance: if hackers can already take control of the cars that we’re driving, what about the cars that we’re not driving? Autonomous vehicles will rely on numerous sensors to navigate the roads. They will be digitised and hooked-up to an extent never before seen. Even just the slightest adjustment to their computations could have horrible consequences. 

And it’s not just the prospect of being sent off course that should concern us. As vehicles become more and more like iPads on wheels, they could also become susceptible to old-fashioned sorts of hackery. Imagine if cars follow mobile phones and start storing our credit card details to make wireless payments. That would be mighty convenient when you sweep through the local petrol station, but it would also be another thing that needs defending from the predations of the hackers. Everything from emails to personal photographs could be stolen from your glove compartment in the cloud. And it may not even take a person to commit the crime: Stephen Hawking has recently warned of the danger that artificial intelligence poses to humanity.

Oh dear. Let’s stop before we get carried away with our fears. The simple truth is that, despite the gloominess of this post, motoring is rapidly changing for the better. But change always creates new challenges, and it would be irresponsible of us – and particularly of car manufacturers – to ignore them. Far better that we pre-empt and maybe even prevent them. So here’s a shout-out to garage-owners across the country: you might want to start hiring techies to work alongside your traditional repairmen.

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